In a dystopian and industrialised world, the Shinra Electric Power Company rules over the city of Midgar in all its facets.
The company exploits a natural resource called Mako for energy generation at great environmental cost.
The game starts with you in the shoes of Avalanche, a small group of eco-terrorists on a mission to destroy one of Shinra’s Mako reactors.
Throughout the game, Avalanche’s conflict with Shinra escalates further as they retaliate and the group’s members grow closer together. But something isn’t quite right…
Final Fantasy VII Remake, as the title suggests, is the remake of the 1997 gaming classic Final Fantasy VII by Square.
Remaking a famous game like that comes with a lot of pressure to live up to the beloved original but also creative opportunities.
Firstly, you have an established foundation to build on with decades of hindsight regarding what did and didn’t work at the time.
And secondly, a lot of players will be somewhat familiar with the original.
This familiarity allows for a unique dialogue with the audience—what you decide to keep and what you decide to change.
Within the context of a remake, these aren’t merely choices but active communication. And FFVII Remake, as it turns out, is very talkative.
The nature of the remake
First, to dispel some potential confusion, this is not a complete remake of FFVII as the name might imply. It is, instead, the first entry in a recently announced trilogy. In the original game, eventually, you get to explore the world outside of the city, but that’s all you will see in this remake.
Obviously, stretching FFVII like this is the result of corporate demand. They weren’t just going to remake a cultural titan like Final Fantasy VII and call it a day. And while the profit-driven endeavours of big publishers like Square Enix grow more shameless by the year, I can’t deny that I am fascinated by what developers manage to do creatively with these business-mediated constraints. Suffice it to say, I think they succeeded in creating something quite special here.
In one way, it’s exactly what you would expect from a remake like this, but in another, it completely defies those expectations. Even more impressive is that the game walks this tightrope of seeming contradictions very well.
As far as the gameplay is concerned, FFVII Remake gets the action RPG treatment. These changes bring it in line with other contemporary Final Fantasy releases like FFXV. And when it comes to the adaption of the story for the remake, things are simultaneously similar and different. Certain things and scenes are adapted very faithfully. For example, the famous introduction to the original is adapted beat by beat. But it doesn’t take long for you to notice major structural differences between the two games. In this review I will mainly focus on the differences and how most of them enhance the original.
Extended world and characters
The general throughline with JRPGs hasn’t changed much since 1997. There is a greater focus on action for the gameplay now, but as far as it goes with the story, characters, and world-building, things are virtually the same. We have a linear spectacle-driven narrative with a diverse cast and a greatly fleshed-out world. With this remake taking the first quarter of FFVII and fleshing it out to about 35 hours, it has room to explore these narrative elements in a depth the original never could. Most immediately apparent is this in the characters. Every single one of them has something new going for them. From small things, like Barrett, the charismatic leader of Avalanche being afraid of heights, over Tifa, another Avalanche member, having frequent doubts about the group’s whole terrorism thing, to major character changes. The most prominent example of such character changes is Jessie. In the original, she is a relatively minor character, but now she is treated with the same attention as major playable ones. She gets much more screen time and further an extended backstory into how her father’s work for Shinra radicalised her into joining Avalanche.
I also should not dismiss what modern hardware capabilities brought to the table. In the original, the 3D models for characters were rough approximations of human anatomy, stiffly animated, where individual polygons were visible. Now, three console generations later, we get richly detailed characters, that smoothly move through their scenes and the world. The new voice acting breathes in the final bit of life into these characters. It gives the game a whole new overall feeling.
Not only do the enhanced visuals sell the characters much better, but also the world as a whole. The best example of this is the city itself. The population of Midgar is greatly divided by class, which was already made clear in the original by having two levels to the city The upper level is built on plates arranged in a circular shape, suspended in the air. Here industry and commerce are situated, including the Mako reactors and Shinra’s headquarters. Most Shinra employees appear to be living here.
The lower classes of Midgar society live in slums on the ground below the plates. So the lower classes are constantly reminded of their social standing with this subtle visual metaphor. In the original though, this wasn’t always that apparent with its fixed top-down camera angles. Now, with the third-person camera following your character, you can look up all the time. It might sound small, but this constant reminder about Midgar’s class divide adds so much to the overall experience.
Looking up from the slums (Credit: Square Enix. Fair use.)
But this remake also finds entirely new ways to comment on the hyper-capitalist nature of Midgar. If you are familiar with Final Fantasy, you will know about Potions. They are a family of generic healing items that have been with the series since the beginning. In FFVII Remake, instead, Potions are produced by a huge corporation. And naturally, the game world is littered with advertising and vending machines for Potions. This repurposing of familiar core elements of the series for thematic ends is genius. Again, it might seem small, but it adds so much to the overall character of the world.
(Credit: Square Enix. Fair use.)
Dealing with FFVII’s narrative legacy
The remake largely follows the events of the original. But the way the game does this is anything but typical. If you are familiar with the original story, you will quickly notice small divergences. For example, the remake introduces the primary antagonist Sephiroth right after the beginning, whereas, originally, that would be a few hours away from that point. These small changes in compound foreshadow much more large-scale changes in the story, but when that fork in the road is reached, something strange happens.
There are forces at work to push back from the story changing too much. When a major divergence in the story is about to happen, ghostly figures called Whispers breach onto the scene and prevent the change from happening. They block the hero’s path or remove characters from the scene before some revelatory backstory could be delivered too early. The Whispers forcefully bring this remake’s story into accord with the original.
What exactly the Whispers represent isn’t clear, but they appear to be the writers’ literal manifestation of anxiety over making changes to the story of a game as beloved as Final Fantasy VII. Anxiety over done changes not being as good as they thought, or, sadly more likely, anxiety over backlash from fans for any changes having been made at all. It asks interesting questions about the nature of remakes. Should developers merely modernise the old and keep with the original’s spirit, or are massive changes—a completely different game even—okay?
In the video game space, we have many faithful remakes. And even in this game, it seems like the Whispers are winning with another modernised but structurally untouched game. But at the climax, our protagonists challenge fate itself and come out victorious. As our heroes prepare to leave Midgar, the game breaks the fourth wall letting us know that the story for this remake’s sequel is yet untold. Thus with the end of the game, we reach the long foreshadowed fork in the road, and the game goes full speed into the unexpected. What an incredible statement!
Despite Final Fantasy VII Remake refraining from making major structural changes to the original’s story until the finale, the changes up until that point can’t exactly be called minor. The most noticeable changes lie with the overall politics of the game, and thus with the terrorist group at the heart of the narrative: Avalanche.
There are two important differences in how the remake approaches the group. The first is in how the game frames Avalanche’s actions, and the second is in what Avalanche does. The reframing has two goals: making the group’s antagonism against Shinra more realistic and painting the group as more sympathetic.
Firstly, Avalanche is part of a wider resistance network now. In hindsight, it was a bit weird with a mega-corporation sucking the life essence from the planet that only a handful of radicals chose to take action against it in the original. This change makes their struggle much more believable.
Another such change that reframes the actions of the group is the bombing mission in the intro. In the original, blowing up the Mako reactor causes a chain reaction that destroys the reactor and its immediate neighbourhood. Contrast that with the remake, where they only plan for a small and controlled explosion to take out the reactor core. But when Shinra’s president gets wind of the plan, he gives the order to destroy the reactor from the inside, which triggers a chain reaction all the same. The company blames the resulting destruction on Avalanche.
At the end of the mission, the game makes you walk through the destroyed streets of Midgar with injured people and onlookers everywhere. While Jessie theorises about what she might have done wrong to trigger the greater explosion, you the player, know that Shinra is to blame. This reframing makes Avalanche immediately more sympathetic to newcomers. It would be much harder to empathise with them just blowing up a reactor in the knowledge that innocent people would die, regardless of their motivation. It also nicely foreshadows the much worse things Shinra will do later.
But not everyone is willing to go as far as Avalanche or even thinks the status quo is bad. When the team arrives in the slums after the bombing mission, a man is tearing down pro-Avalanche posters. He makes it clear that he thinks what Shinra is doing in Midgar is progress. He looks up at the steel plates and sees progress, not oppression. It makes a lot of sense. Shinra couldn’t do what they do without many willing participants. Does that remind you of something?
It is clear that the much increased awareness of the ensuing climate catastrophe is the reason for this remake’s increased radicalness. Not only has the environmentalist message of the original FFVII not aged a bit, but it was updated to be allegorically about climate change. Because of this, the parallels are so stark. And it also allows FFVIIR to delve into a lot more adjacent topics in a seamless manner. The game explores how corporate media manufactures public opinion that is beneficial to the powerful. It explores how despite Shinra being a gigantic threat to the planet, many people choose to be complicit.
But even more interestingly, the game shows how radical revolutionary groups can structure themselves.
When looking at revolutionary struggle, it is easy to overemphasise the big event. In the case of FFVIIR, that would be destroying Mako reactors. But it is arguably much more important to aid in the creation of a revolutionary society that can facilitate the fought for change. This game makes this clear by focusing on community building between the big story moments. You do this by helping the people in the slums in their daily struggles. And as a bonus, it nicely slots into the familiar side questing structure of most JRPGs.
Later, when Shinra unleashes horrifying death and destruction upon the slums in revenge against Avalanche, you are the one organising an evacuation from there, managing to save a lot of lives.
The general handling of this event is curious in comparison to the original. Not only does no such evacuation take place there, but also later, this event is used as the catalyst for Barret to regret his radical actions. He accepts the responsibility for what happened because Shinra was reacting to Avalanche−violence begets violence, that’s the moral of the story. This remake rejects this both-sidesism, giving us an energetic and angry Barret, who blames Shinra completely for what they have done. This change greatly elevates the story because this acceptance of personal guilt severely undercuts core messages of the original and trades it with an unsatisfactory conclusion.
It might sound somewhat contradictory, but this remake is simultaneously broader and more focused than its predecessor in its political messaging. It’s also a lot more angry and empathetic. I love it.
Action Time Battle
The gameplay is quite similar to the story. In many ways, the remake builds on and pays tribute to the original. This manifests in small parts in the few mini-games across the game, getting a modern do-over and polish, or even introducing new ones. But when it comes to gameplay, most people will think of the combat.
The remake attempts a fusion of the original FFVII’s combat and the combat of the most recent series entry, Final Fantasy XV.
In this fused combat system, you have over-the-shoulder control of a character, triggering combat actions on button presses. However, in contrast to XV, you can switch between characters on the fly. If there are enemies high up in the air, and they become inconvenient to reach with Cloud because he is a sword fighter, you could switch to Barret, who has a rotary cannon for a hand.
Another distinguishing factor from FFXV is the menuing. When you open the menu during combat, time slows down, and you have the space to deliberate your next move in this otherwise quite hectic combat system. From the menu, you can use items, abilities, and magic spells—the expected—but also issue all those same commands to characters you don’t control. And this is where the tactical aspects of FFVII’s combat system come into play. Overall this fusion works very well.
Since you can take active control over characters, the way combat roles work shifted. Instead of characters having somewhat predetermined roles in combat—healer, damage-dealer, and so on—every character is a good base fighter who is fun to control. For example, Aerith, another character that joins your party, got originally funnelled quite heavily to be a healer or a spell caster because her physical capabilities are terrible. In the remake, she is a competent base fighter from the get-go, very useful, as her attacks are ranged and very fun to control.
Characters now entirely specialise through Materia, which go into the designated slots of your character’s equipment. Materia can give a character either passive abilities or spells to cast. This is great because it allows you to pursue your dream party of characters. What is also fantastic about this is that when integral party members are taken away from you for story reasons, with a bit of Materia juggling in the equipment menu, you can restore the missing character’s functionality for your party. However, since that substitute characters likely won’t have the same sum of Materia slots across their equipment, it also encourages experimentation. If you have to make do with less, what do you really need? If you have more, what Materia do you want to try out?
Another novelty that encourages experimentation is the many different weapons the characters can equip. Many of them feel very different, as each one comes with a unique ability. The twist is that each weapon gives you a sort of combat mini-quest to attain mastery over the weapon. Such mastery allows you to keep the ability even when equipped with a different weapon. This has two benefits. For one, the given mini-quest can guide you in using the weapon effectively because the tasks always require you to do the weapon’s unique thing. And secondly—as mentioned before— it encourages experimentation. It is a common problem in RPGs that you effectively get locked into a character build simply because you have used that build for a while, levelled up all your equipment and so on. However, when you eventually find something new that you would like to try, you would have to start from zero all over again. This discourages experimentation over the course of a game because so much about your character is effectively set in stone. The more you go on the less likely you are to switch things up. Final Fantasy VII Remake cleverly avoids this problem.
However, the one major issue I have with this new combat system is that the damage that you receive in battle stays when it is over. Now, this is of course how it was in the original, but since so many things were changed about the combat system for this remake, being conservative here has negative consequences.
Having to heal after many encounters so that you are prepared for the next one slows down the game. While this was passable in the original since the combat system was also passive, in the remake, once the engaging action is over, things grind to a halt as you have to navigate menus to your healing items and spells. And unlike using the menu in combat, the strategic component is absent. It’s just tedious. And it gets more and more tedious as the game goes on because with time your inventory holds many low potency healing items, which are of little use in combat beyond a certain point. So if you want to be efficient, you use these items outside of combat, making the regular healing ritual even slower.
It seems like the developers noticed this as well because, towards the end, you will increasingly see more benches in the areas you explore. These are for fully healing your party for free. It does soften the impact of this issue but much too late and too little. So while the devs took precautions for the healing ritual not to escalate too much, it’s still annoying.
Final Fantasy VII Remake is everything a Remake should be and goes even beyond that. It greatly extends a gaming classic thematically, narratively, politically and gameplay-wise. It is self-aware of the cultural impact of the original game, but it is also not afraid of bold divergences, especially at the end.
The fusion the remake provides of Final Fantasy XV’s combat system and Final Fantasy VII’s traditional Action Time Battle is largely a success. But the unfitting health-management approach does dampen the action quite a bit.
Overall, this is brilliant, and whatever the follow-up to this remake will be, I’ll be eagerly awaiting it.
Hotline Miami 2 is easily one of the most remarkable instances of creators trolling their own fan base. This game is notorious for not living up to the expectations set by its predecessor. Yet, I don’t believe that this game is a failure of game creation but instead has been deliberately constructed to be the way it is. To understand why we have to look at what came before HM2.
Hotline Miami is a hugely celebrated action game from 2012. It’s a simple and self-contained game. Split into several levels, you play as an on-demand hitman who goes to the places left on his answering machine and commits a massacre. These killing sprees make up the core gameplay loop. From a top-down view you move through the levels and kill dozens of people to an aggressive electronic soundtrack—beating them, slashing them, shooting them. The violence is visceral, blood goes everywhere, and feedback is immediate. It’s addicting.
However, when you’ve killed everyone, the music stops abruptly, and the game has you walking back through the level to your car—walking through the pools of blood and corpses you created. In this simple way, the game traps the player in addictive violence but then suddenly pauses and asks you to reflect on what you just did. The commentary on violent action games is obvious. And with, at the time, massively popular shooter series like Call of Duty and Battlefield loving to employ the trope of the Russian villain, the fact that the people you are killing are part of a Russian gang is probably not a coincidence. And I have to admit that killing people in this game is a tonne of fun. Hotline Miami triumphs in its simplicity.
It is then very unfortunate, that this game acquired a fandom that absolutely loved the violence and obsessed over the game’s obscure plot while closing their eyes to the game’s actual message. This is the group of people that Hotline Miami 2 seeks to troll.
Hotline Miami 2 is a sequel for the fans of the original game in the bluntest form. People liked the combat? We need bigger levels, more violence, and more play styles! People loved the obscure story? Let’s give them more characters, elaborate backstories for those from the original, and a non-linearly told story that’s gonna take some real puzzle-solving to crack! It’s designed to deliver the fans of the original an overdose of the same.
Explaining sequels like this as the result of lacking creativity or as a cynical cash grab might be tempting, but it’s just not the case here. The creators proved their creativity and game design abilities with the original Hotline Miami. And on top of that, the creative leads, Jonathan Söderström and Dennis Wedin didn’t change between the two projects. And lastly, there is significantly more effort put into this game than the predecessor, which is clear to see. It seems very unlikely then that this is just a way of cashing in for the devs.
The elimination of these possibilities and looking at the game’s contents make me believe it is trolling—an artistic statement on their relationship with their fandom.
Hotline Miami 2’s story is completely incomprehensible in the way it is told. And on top of that, once you partially decipher what is going on, the story is plainly ridiculous.
The game’s overall presentation isn’t very helpful in making the player understand what is going on. The whole experience is styled after movies. The game is split into “acts”, which are subdivided into “scenes”, which you select from a menu of VHS tapes. The multiple timelines in the narrative are jumped between by, of course, rewinding and fast-forwarding the tape. And to really mess with you within the game’s narrative, there is an actual movie being filmed. You act out some of its scenes, which are often indistinguishable from things that actually happen within the game world.
But somehow, it gets even more convoluted once the game introduces its backstory in act three. Apparently, the USA and USSR fought a war against each other on Hawaii. The conflict was brought to an end with a nuclear first strike by the Soviets. And this is why Russians are hated so much in this world. That’s certainly one way of addressing that question. If that sounds ridiculous to you, it should! It certainly does to me. It’s the point where you should realise that the creators are messing with you.
I would usually not feel comfortable just blankly calling an entire game trolling like this. It would be bad for criticism if just everything that is contradictory or seems ridiculous could be written off as mere trolling. So how is this game different?
Besides the ridiculousness of the setting, and specific story moments that attempt a critical commentary on Hotline Miami’s fandom, the creators themselves don’t seem to have much respect for their own work on this game. The most obvious point would be how, at the end, the entire world is destroyed. Everything was told and set up for nothing, it appears. But there is an even clearer indicator. The game’s acts in chronological order are called: Exposition, Rising, Climax, Falling, Intermission and Catastrophe. Except for Intermission, these are exactly the generic names for the acts in the five-act structure of a drama. In fact, it’s so generic, here is an illustration of this structure I found on Wikipedia:
(Credit: SinjoroFoster. Public domain.)
While, clearly, a lot of writing effort went into this game, it’s not presented with a lot of heart. Combined with story moments that seemingly only exist to frustrate and confuse those that actually want to engage with the story, I think the case for this game being trolling is very straightforward. However, some moments do make sense if we understand them as commentary on the trolled audience. This goes for both the people that uncritically enjoyed the original‘s violence and those that obsessed over lore so much they missed the game’s actual point.
Hotline Miami 2 features a long list of characters that you play as. A lot, if not all, of these characters, are a meta-commentary on the game’s fandom. It highlights different nasty elements of that group.
The most obvious meta-commentary lies with a group of people that took inspiration from the player character in the original Hotline Miami for their streaks of mass murder. Like him, they wear different animal masks, but here they do all the time, unlike in HM, where they were only put on directly before a massacre. And just in case you didn’t get it, the game refers to this group as “The Fans” in its Achievements.
The Fans, unsurprisingly, kill for fun. Their final killing spree happens at the end of act three. Here you play as each one wiping out a floor of the building while an aggressive house track plays in the background. This is where all the people who The Fans represent get what they want. Except, at the end of the level, they all unceremoniously die. While the original game ends with some moral ambiguity, as the main character exacts his revenge on the mafia and triumphantly lights a cigarette, there is no justification or glory here.
Another character that loves the violence he’s enacting is a literal neo-Nazi. With the original‘s hints of ultra-nationalism (if you refuse to engage with metaphor), it’s not surprising that it appealed to a certain audience. You’re introduced to him as he shaves his head in the bathroom, and the moment you go into his living room, you immediately notice the flag of the Confederacy that is lying on his sofa like a blanket. After you are done carrying out his hateful killing, he tries to get a tattoo to celebrate the occasion but fails because he didn’t schedule an appointment. Here the creators are telling their Nazi fans to piss off, by showing them someone they can identify with and having him be a sad and pathetic loser.
Meta-commentary of the game extends beyond just commenting on the killing, however. Hotline Miami 2 starts out with a scene of sexual assault, where a murdering creep goes after a woman he thinks is his girlfriend. Initially, this looks like senseless provocation, but there’s more to it. You see, this scene is part of a film being filmed within the game’s narrative, which was inspired by the happenings of Hotline Miami. The actress, playing the victim in this scene, has a strong resemblance with a woman the main character in HM saves from the mafia. Actually, there is no clear indication that he is saving her. It might just as well have been a kidnapping. Either way, the woman lives with the main character from there on out. It’s not hard to imagine that this decision wasn’t entirely enthusiastic, or even a choice at all, considering the main character is a serial killer.
The movie plot in HM2 is a commentary on how not a lot of people got that you weren’t exactly a knight in shining armour in the original game. In a later scene, the creep is arrested because the woman reported him to the police. In the following level, you murder your way through the police station to where she is being interviewed. On entering the room, she shoots you and screams: “I am not your fucking girlfriend!” It’s clear what is being said here. And, again, just in case you didn’t get it, in the first level, where you play as one of the Fans, you are tasked with bringing the sister of another Fan home from a gang. You do what you do best—murder your way through to her—but she doesn’t want to go with you. You just murdered all her friends. Distressed and with a gun in her hands, she tells you to leave her and go. If you don’t listen and get closer, she shoots you, and you have to do the floor all over again. You get punished for not having learned your lesson.
Finally, the game’s story is a massive middle finger to those that obsessed over the original game’s lore while disregarding any of the game’s use of metaphor and allegory. This goes beyond the back story about the hot war between the USA and USSR being totally ridiculous. While the game gives these people a hugely convoluted story to unravel, it is all for nothing in the end. The game finishes in an outright nuclear war between the superpowers, using their capacity for mutually assured destruction to reduce the game world to ash.
Over the credits, you watch as every character that was introduced in the series (and is still alive) dying in a nuclear blast—one after the other. Did you have fun putting all the puzzle pieces together? Well, it’s gone now.
The final image you see of the game is the fictional start screen of “Hotline Miami 3”. In the background, you can see the ruins of the Floridian city. Of course, there is no narrative comeback from an ending like this. It’s not supposed to be an exciting teaser for another instalment in the Hotline Miami series. Instead, what it is doing is asking a question. You’ve just played through the sequel to Hotline Miami. How does the idea of another sequel make you feel?
(Credit: Dennaton Games. Fair use.)
There is a mean-spiritedness to this all. The game uses metaphor and allegory to make fun of and comment on the people who didn’t get that about the original. Pulling the story into the ridiculous and referencing characters from the original isn’t going to make them realise anything—it will all just seem like an even greater puzzle to unravel. While those who get it laugh at them, they do in-depth theory crafting for a game that showed them the finger, but, of course, they didn’t recognise it as such. And looking at the wiki articles and lore videos made for this game, it seems like that’s exactly what happened. Hotline Miami 2 could have tried to communicate how many got the original wrong but instead reads much more like the self-indulgent product of pure spite.
The gameplay in this game is not all that interesting because, except for some superficial additions, it is largely unaltered from the original. The music still stops abruptly after you are finished killing everyone. It’s still the same trial and error per level. You step-by-step uncover the best strategy for getting through it consistently with the twist that the enemies have slightly different weapons on every attempt, so you always have to improvise somewhat.
While the story is fully developed with a clear through-line of what it is doing, the gameplay makes Hotline Miami 2 feel a lot more like the misguided sequel that many people think it is. The game now features a wide cast of characters—each with their own unique traits. And further, new enemy types. But what really sticks out is the difficulty.
The game is immediately more difficult than its predecessor. While the first level in Hotline Miami featured only goons with melee weapons to get you accustomed to how the game plays in a manageable way, in Hotline Miami 2, the first enemy in the first proper level has a gun. And not just the one. There are many more of them with wide-open spaces and corridors for you to get shot from off-screen. The difficulty escalates more quickly too. In level three, you can already not trust walls and corners anymore because there are windows everywhere for you to get shot through.
The primary factor in Hotline Miami 2’s higher difficulty are the much larger levels. Because as there are more things, more things vary and can go wrong. Beyond that, the levels are so big that enemies triggered by a gunshot can take up to 15-20 seconds to get to you from areas of the floor you weren’t even looking at, catching you off guard.
But ultimately, this is tame in comparison to the story. It’s a somewhat more difficult and frustrating version of the original with some easy additions that one would expect from a sequel. The ridiculous tones of the story really don’t shine through here. The gameplay would have been the prime place to further the meta-commentary already present. But for whatever reason, this aspect of Hotline Miami stays relatively untouched. The core gameplay sections just being more frustrating is a huge missed opportunity. Despite being harder, it’s nothing you couldn’t get accustomed to. With enough trial and error, you will be able to triumph over this game’s difficulty. And that’s the problem: the gameplay does not challange this way of engagement. It could have been a great way to complement the messaging of the story with the core component of Hotline Miami, the violence. But instead, it settles for, arguably, giving the fans it set out to troll precisely what they wanted.
Hotline Miami 2 is a very fascinating game. The trolling aspects make for intriguing creator-fandom dynamics, but the game being unwilling to touch its own gameplay for that purpose undercuts it significantly. The primary interactive component of HM2 being a more-frustrating-but-nothing-more experience is very disappointing.
The game’s trolling has some great isolated high points, but, in my opinion, the game didn’t go nearly far enough.
Picross is a long-running Nintendo games series that revolves around solving Nonograms, a popular Japanese logic puzzle. The series has been so influential in the popularisation of Nonograms that many people only know them by that name. The puzzle requires filling a grid according to sequences of numbers on the side. Each row and column on the grid has such a number sequence. Following the rules, a cell in the grid is either filled or left empty. Once done, they form a picture.
It’s somewhat similar to another popular Japanese logic puzzle, Sudoku, in that it offers practically infinite puzzle variations and a simple set of rules to complete a puzzle. But contrary to Sudoku, where you have to choose a number ranging from one to nine to fill a cell, for Nonograms, the choice is binary. It is a much simpler type of puzzle in comparison. But in turn, it gains some flexibility. For Sudoku, the grid is fixed in size, whereas Nonograms have arbitrary width and height.
The way I play these two puzzle games totally differs, however. A Sudoku puzzle can be hard to crack, and it is fun spending minutes eliminating possibilities until you’ve found a progression path. With Nonograms, it is the most fun trying to solve them as fast as possible. The significantly easier ruleset allows for this. And with filling a grid cell being a binary choice, it is much easier digitised to a simple button press than Sudoku is. Everything about Picross lends itself to this fast playstyle, and it is a tonne of fun.
With this introduction out of the way, let’s talk about the actual game this review is about.
The actual game
Picross 3D is HAL Laboratory’s attempt at extending this two-dimensional puzzle classic by another dimension. Instead of a grid of cells, you start with a cube that subdivides into many smaller cubes. And instead of constructing a pixel image, you form a voxel sculpture out of the cube.
With this, you can’t really have sequences of numbers on the side. So for this game, it is simplified to one number per line. Although, it’s not quite that simple. Sometimes a number has a modifier, indicated by having the number painted within a square or circle. The number tells you how many consecutive blocks in the line remain part of the final sculpture, and the modifiers tell you how many gaps are allowed in the sequence of blocks.
The game primarily uses the Nintendo DS’s touchscreen for controls. Whereas with other Picross games on the platform, touchscreen controls were optional, here they are mandatory. With the stylus, you rotate the puzzle to look at it from all directions. It works the same with marking cubes to be kept or destroying them.
One nice thing, that differs from how Picross usually works, is that cubes that are marked to be kept cannot be destroyed without unmarking them first. This is great, as the risk of misclicking is high, especially on larger puzzles. It shows that a lot of consideration went into how this game differs from the rest of the series and how its unique qualities necessitate certain things to be different.
Since the puzzle is in 3D, you also have to have the ability to look inside the puzzle, to see things that would be otherwise obscured by other cubes. For this, you can slice the puzzle along the three axes to get a cross-section.
Another unique thing about this game is that it features a rating system. On completion, you can earn up to three stars. One star is always guaranteed. You get another if you solve the puzzle under a certain time threshold. And the final one is earned for not making any mistakes.
The game is broken down into levels that contain a collection of puzzles, and you can advance to the next level after collecting a certain amount of stars.
The other major distinguishing factor of the game is its aesthetics. Picross games are usually quite stylistically plain. This game has a much more distinct visual identity. It features a mascot that is a cube with a face on it that makes celebratory dances as you solve puzzles.
A newly started puzzle with the game’s mascot in the bottom-left. (Credit: HAL Laboratory. Fair use.)
What it feels like
The addition of another dimension to a 2D puzzle game sounds simple enough, but here, it significantly shifts the overall game feel. What was added in terms of complexity was trimmed elsewhere in turn. For example, there might be lines going into three different directions now, but each can only feature one number, instead of multiple, like in classical Picross. The overall logical complexity is similar but achieved through different means. These differences have further side effects on the gameplay beyond just the new controls.
Picross 3D plays very differently from classical Picross, in that the act of solving is much more slow and deliberate. The three-dimensional nature of the puzzles results in you never seeing the whole puzzle at once. Realistically, you can only look at two dimensions at once while solving. In practice, this results in a constant shifting between the three dimensions.
The controls also foster a more deliberate playstyle. Because of the 3D perspective, the cubes heavily vary in size and shape due to their projection onto a 2D screen. This makes misclicking very easy, and thus you have to go slow to avoid mistakes.
The game further incentivises methodical play with its rating system. Making mistakes in this game is easier than ever, and if you make one, a star will be subtracted from your three-star rating.
With all that said, you can probably see that my usual way of playing Picross is on a collision course with this game.
What I don’t like
The required deliberateness during puzzle solving results in a lot of downtime, where you aren’t as much solving a puzzle as you are searching for the next line to advance on. Standard Picross has this too, to an extent. But since you have a full view of the puzzle at all times, downtime due to searching is much smaller. This is especially true once you realise the locality principle to solving standard Picross. When you progress on a line, the corresponding row or column orthogonal to it is also affected, and most of the time, you can directly progress from there. Thus it forms a chain of actions with minimal downtime. As a result, this lends itself to playing the game quickly and is a tonne of fun. And this is the problem with Picross 3D. The puzzles aren’t more challenging, but, due to their 3D nature, are slower to solve. Thus it removes the integral fun component for solving Picross for me and, unfortunately, doesn’t add anything to replace it. The greater emphasis on visual style was enough to keep me playing initially, but after several hours that wore off. After that, the game was just a slog to play.
Furthermore, I have several technical complaints. Once you get into the later stages of the game, the puzzles get big and quite unwieldy. The puzzles take up the entire screen, and looking at multiple dimensions simultaneously, requires you to shift your view around constantly to see what goes over the edges of the screen. The puzzle slicing is even worse. Slicing the puzzle to see only parts of it resizes it on screen accordingly. This produces the problem that when you slice in, the game zooms in, but once you want to slice out, due to the zoom, the point you would have to reach to slice out fully is out of the frame. You have to slice out as far as the screen allows for and redo the motion until you are done. And because of the size of the puzzles, you have to do slicing like this constantly. It’s very annoying.
And again, on larger puzzles, there are severe issues with aliasing, which makes numbers hard to read at certain angles.
Picross 3D seems like a natural and simple extension of standard Picross, but that assumption would be wrong. Bringing Picross to the third dimension significantly alters the gameplay. So much so that it removes why I play Picross in the first place.
The larger puzzles are especially problematic. Not only are the base problems further exacerbated by them, but the game doesn’t even appear to be built to deal with the sheer volume of cubes that make up those puzzles. They make the case that bigger isn’t necessarily better — sometimes it’s just bigger.